Shadows of the Soul
Hack, hack hack. Xena methodically kept her arm moving, getting into a rhythm of mayhem as she cut and sliced her way towards the gates. She was a target, and she knew it. Her body rose up higher on her tall horse than anyone else around, and she found herself ducking arrows and dodging spear thrusts more often than almost could handle.
But there was no option, and she knew that, too. “Die, ya stinking bastards!” She released her reins and grabbed her sword two handed, smashing her hilts down onto the head of a man clutching her leg, splitting his skull and sending blood and brains down the leg of her horse.
He didn’t like it. Given the man’s stink, Xena didn’t blame him. “Eeyah!” She kneed the big stallion and he hopped to one side, kicking out with his hind legs and thrusting aside the dead man’s body.
Brego’s men were swarming over hers, their much greater number making the battle seem more like a massacre, except that her men weren’t dying easily.
Xena spotted four enemy soldiers attacking Brendan. She whirled away from two men attacking her, and spurred Tiger into a gallop, knocking down men in her way and cutting the heads off those stupid enough to try to jump her.
She reached the four just in time to kick one, gut another, and stab a third with her hastily drawn dagger.
Brendan killed the fourth. Xena tapped him on the head with her sword flat, and whirled Tiger on his haunches, sending him back towards the front lines at a gallop.
“Bless ye, Mistress!” Brendan yelled after her. “Fo’ard, lads! Together now!”
They all came after her now. Someone had given them the idea that she was the key to the battle somehow. Xena found herself quickly surrounded by determined men, as a quick glance towards the gates showed a scuffle and chaos there as a crowd of servants were preventing the stronghold’s defenders from coming out.
They’d driven two wagons into the opening, and were throwing things at the soldiers, boxes and supplies, in a whirlwind of yelling, frantic bodies.
A cold anger gripped her. “Those little bastards.” She uttered, understanding the betrayal. But there wasn’t time to think about it as a dozen men closed around her and she was in danger of being pulled off her horse.
Gabrielle gripped Patches mane and stared, as she watched the fight, her eyes never leaving the tall figure astride the big black horse. Xena’s hair was wild and loose, her sword moving like lightning flashes as she fought fiercely with the men besieging the stronghold.
She gasped, seeing Brendan in trouble, then was able to breathe again as she saw Xena galloping to his rescue. But a group of the enemy had gathered, and she saw them heading for the queen as she turned.
It was hard to stay put. She tangled her fingers into the reins, and told herself all she’d get if she went into the fight was killed, and Xena being horribly angry with her. She didn’t want that.
She didn’t want Xena to get hurt, either. It was like being pulled in two different directions by two very strong forces.
Then one of the servants next to her gasped and pointed, and Gabrielle looked, standing up a little in her stirrups to see what the woman was looking at. In the opening, the soldiers inside were trying to get out, and they were being stopped by…
By the stronghold’s servants. “Oh no!” Gabrielle groaned. “We’ve got to stop them!”
“Stop them.. the soldiers?” The woman turned to her. “We’ll be killed!”
“No!” Gabrielle pointed. “The others! We’ve got to stop them… let the other soldiers out! If these guys win, we’ll die anyway!”
A moment’s indecision. Then… ‘She’s right.” One of them men said. “Let’s go! No matter what, I’m with the queen.”
“Aye.” The woman agreed quietly. “Though I’d never have thought to say it.”
Gabrielle released the reins, and urged Patches ahead, leading the servants out from the cover they’d been hiding in. She picked a path around the battle and slapped the pony on his rear, hoping everyone would follow her.
Kick, damn you. Xena felt herself tiring, as she tried again to give Tiger the right signal. This time he got it, and she clamped her knees down as he lashed out backwards, knocking back several of the men attacking her.
Stallions had their good points. They were a pain in the ass to train, and the gods help you if there was a mare around in heat, but when your neck was on the line and you needed an animal to fight for you, they were there.
Most of the time, anyway. When their rider was in their right mind and not about to fall off their backs. “Eeyhah!” Xena found herself some fighting room, but motion in her peripheral vision made her head snap around as she spotted the servants racing around the edge of the battlefield heading for the gates.
“Son of a b..” Xena started to pull Tiger around, then she paused, her eyes following the line of where the servants were heading.
Towards the other servants. The ones who were blocking her men. Xena swung a backhanded blow with her sword, cutting the arm off a man about to plunge a spear into her side. Would they join them, or..? Xena was unable to keep her eyes from finding Gabrielle’s mounted form in the melee, the blond woman’s face set and determined as she guided her pony into danger.
“Xena, worry about keeping yourself alive.” The queen muttered, as she was thrown sideways by two soldiers leaping halfway up her horse, their hands grabbing at her sword arm and a sliver of bloodied steel heading it’s way towards her heart.
“T’the left, lads!” Brendan’s voice came to her from behind. “Get em! Get t’bastards!”
Yeah, yeah. Xena desperately batted away the knife, unable to maneuver well because the two men were pinning her right leg to her horse.
Instinct warned her just in time, and she leaned back as a man flew at her from the back of a wagon and landed across Tiger’s shoulders, his mace slamming down and fortuitously smashing the head of the soldier pinning her leg.
“Thanks!” Xena ripped the mace from his hands and tossed him over the other side of her horse. She lifted the mace and smashed it into the second man’s face, sending bits of gore all over everything. Tiger shifted and kicked out, surprising her as he crab hopped sideways, clearing space for both of them.
She looped the mace onto her saddle horn and shifted her sword, looking around quickly.
Her men were doing their best. Brego’s men outnumbered them five to one, at least, but they were focusing on trying to kill her, and that left them open to attacks by her forces, working in teams just like she’d taught them.
But her men were dying. Xena felt an unreasoning rush of rage and pain, and she gathered herself up, spotting a bunch of Bregos lousy bastards and spurring Tiger towards them. She let out a wild yell and attacked them viciously, letting her hatred and anger fuel her sword arm.
Two, then four fell to her attack. More ran to help them, and finally she had to jump off Tiger’s back so they wouldn’t pull him to the ground. She met them at their own level now, and they quickly found out they’d have been better off leaving her up there.
On the ground, she was a nightmare. Xena ducked and whirled, showing her true mastery of her weapon as she met their blades as they surrounded her and deflected them all, twisting her boots to gain some leverage as she locked her arms and drove all the way around, cutting through men’s bodies and removing at least one hand before she pulled her sword into her body and changed her attack, closing with the nearest man and ramming the tip of her blade up through his armor into his ribcage.
“Ahhh!” His voice ended on a gurgle as she twisted her hands and yanked up, then kicked the man away from her.
“C’mon, you gutless nothings! Die!” Xena yelled. “I’ll kill you all!”
She smashed her hilts, her fists wrapped around them, across another man’s face and felt the bone crunch under the blow.
Two of them gathered the guts to jump her, and she felt hits connect, rocking her body before she could twisted around and slam her elbow into one of them.
Her knees buckled unexpectedly as the second smacked her across the back of her head. Xena started to go down, the world graying out around her, but then forced herself back upright by sheer will. She found her dagger in her hand and she drove it around as the second man sensed his advantage and grabbed her, and the blade slid home with the grating sensation of steel hitting bone.
A yell behind her made her whirl, and she felt her heart skip as she saw the soldiers from the stronghold pouring out of a break in the blockade, half of one of the wagons dragged out of the way as the servants she brought with her tussled with the ones holding the door.
Yeah. Xena found herself smiling as she tasted victory, the fresh troops riding down Bregos men, who couldn’t regroup in time to stop them. The two remaining men facing her turned and ran, and Xena twirled her sword in her hand, letting out a hiss of satisfaction.
“Stop!” Gabrielle was the first to reach the gates. “Stop! Get back! Let them out!”
One of the servants turned and spat at her. “Get out of her, whore!” He threw a bag at her. “Beat it! Go back to your bitch!”
Gabrielle caught the bag with a grunt and threw it back. “You’re making a big mistake!” She searched the faces, seeing no sympathy there. “She’s not your enemy!”
“Shut up!” A familiar voice interjected. Gabrielle looked up to see Toris among the blockaders, leading them against the soldiers pounding against the wagons. “You little whore… get out of here!”
The rest of the servants arrived, and started pulling at the ones blocking the gates. Gabrielle was the only one mounted, and she could see the troops behind the wagons, hacking desperately at them. But Toris had planned well, and the wagons were filled to bursting with heavy crates, stuck in the opening and effectively stopping it completely.
She looked behind her, seeing only carnage, and Xena in the middle of it fighting for her life. “I’m not leaving!” She yelled, scrambling off Patches back and leading him towards the wagon. A man tried to grab her, but she ducked and rammed him with her shoulder.
Ow. That hurt. But it knocked him aside and she was able to dart between him and another man, and grab hold of the thick leather harness hanging from the wagon.
So many things here confused her. So many things were outside her experience, and beyond her very meager knowledge.
But this.. this she knew. “Keep them away from me!” She yelled to three of Xena’s servants. “I’ll pull the wagons!”
“Go!” The man nearest her yelled. “I’ve got your back!”
Gabrielle dragged Patches closer, desperately trying to turn him so she could throw the traces over his back. “C”mon, Patches… you gotta help me out here!” She got the leather straps over the pony’s shoulders and tightened them with experienced hands. “I know this isn’t your thing, but you know… this whole thing isn’t my thing but I’ve learned.”
Patches nickered at her.
That was from inside the stronghold. Gabrielle recognized the Duke’s voice, and knew she’d been spotted. With shaking fingers, she fastened the last buckle, the one at the shoulder that would take the brunt of the weight of the wagon.
She ran to Patches head and grabbed his bridle, leading him forward as debris started to rain down on top of her. “C’mon, boy!” Her pony was smaller by far than the brute who would usually pull the wagon, but he threw himself forward gamely, tugging against the heavy load. “C’mon.. I’ll help!”
It was crazy, and she knew it. She could no more pull the wagon than she could jump over the stronghold. But she dug her boots in and tightened her fingers on the leather, leaning her weight forward and pulling with all the strength in her body.
The leather creaked, but it felt like she was pulling against the stronghold itself. “C”mon!” She pleaded with Patches. The pony snorted, and lunged forward, his hooves digging out chunks of mud.
Gabrielle could hear wild chaos behind her, and screams. She just kept pulling, and after an endless moment, she felt her momentum start to go forward. “Yeah! YEAH!” She yanked frantically, her boots slipping in the soft ground, then gaining purchase and moving ahead.
There was a cracking sound behind her, then she felt something hit her in the back, then she heard a triumphant yell go up. Abruptly, the wagon moved faster, and she turned, to see a black opening in the gates, full of fighters now pouring through.
Axes rose and fell, chopping down the servants, who now turned and ran screaming as the warriors boiled out and attacked Bregos men.
Her wagon caught it’s wheels on debris and stopped moving, but it had done what she needed it to. Gabrielle stopped Patches and turned, searching for Xena with anxious eyes.
Then she was grabbed by the back of the neck and swung against the wagon with sickening force. Rough hands turned her, and she blinked the stars from her eyes as she saw Toris in front of her, his hands clenched in her tunic.
“We’ll all die. But you’ll die first.” He backhanded her across the face, and she stumbled and fell to the ground, stunned by the force. He stood over her and raised an ax in his arms, his face a mask of hatred as he swung at her.
Xena shoved two of her men forward, directing the battle now as the fresh soldiers from the stronghold joined them on the field. A ring of her own men surrounded her, and she picked out the rebel pockets, sending men to exterminate them with ruthless efficiency.
Something grabbed her.
Not physically, but regardless she felt herself pulled towards the gates, and her eyes swept over the area in startled confusion.
The battlefield stood still. She saw Gabrielle grabbed, and thrown, and hit.
She saw the ax.
She never remembered leaving the battle. She never remembered running across the bloody, churned ground.
She only knew in the seconds before she threw her body between that ax and that slight figure that it looked like the damn oracle had been right after all.
But it was all right.
She leaped the last bodylengths, her legs sending her out and sprawling over Gabrielle’s body a split second before the ax came down. Just a split second for her to meet the shocked green eyes, and grin.
The impact hit her back with stunning force, but…
But she was still moving, and by the god’s fickle grace the blade caught on the plate of armor across her back and turned just enough to stop it from plunging into her body.
Xena went with the motion, turning over as the ax thudded into the ground next to her. One leg lashed out and kicked the boots apart of the man standing over her, and the other uncoiled and nailed him right in the crotch.
He dropped to the earth. Xena drew her dagger and leaped on top of him, straddling his body and lifting her weapon.
His eyes lifted to hers. Xena smiled with absolutely no humor. “Hello, Toris.”
Gabrielle scrambled over to her and clutched Xena’s armor, breathing hard. “Xe..”
“Ah ah.” The queen shushed her. “Never interrupt me in the middle of a good execution, Gabrielle.” She lowered the knife to his throat, and pushed, it’s tip breaking skin and drawing blood. “Not when it’s this enjoyable for me.”
The queen turned her head. “Gabrielle.” Her voice dipped much lower.
“Don’t… I think it would be… “ Gabrielle could hardly catch her breath, and her head was ringing from the blow Toris had given her. “Everyone should see. He’s been against you all the time.”
To her surprise, Xena laughed. “He’s been against me since I was born.” She turned and regarded her prisoner. Then her hand lifted and descended, flickering fast, accompanied by a sharp crack.
Toris slumped, and went completely still.
Xena wiped her hands on her thighs and seated her dagger in it’s sheath, deliberately spitting on the man she was crouching over. “But you’re right, my friend. It should be in public. I’ll disembowel him right in the grand ballroom.”
Gabrielle exhaled. “He knows you.” She whispered, exhausted.
“Unfortunately.” Xena heaved herself off Toris’ now still body and sat down in the mud next to Gabrielle. “He’s my brother.”
Gabrielle blinked. Then she let her head rest against Xena’s shoulder and tried not to be sick. “Thank you.”
“For what?” Xena looked around the battlefield, seeing her men pursuing the remainder of Bregos troops away from the stronghold. “Kill them all!” She yelled at the top of her voice. “They all die!”
Gabrielle closed her eyes. “For saving me.”
“Least I could do after you disobeyed me yet again and were doing a great job of getting yourself killed.” The queen’s voice was mild, however. “Nice move with the wagon.”
“Can we go inside?”
“Not yet.” Xena flexed one hand. “I’m not sure I can stand up.”
Gabrielle opened her eyes and looked up in alarm. The queen’s profile was etched in exhaustion. “Me either.” She admitted softly. “But maybe we could help each other?”
Xena held a hand out. “Best offer I’ve had all day.”
They stood up slowly together, using Patches’ harness to pull themselves upright. All around them the battle was winding down, and the ground was covered in the dead, dying, and wounded.
But the gates were open, leading the way home.
“Move it out!” One of the stronghold’s drovers led the team now hitched to the remaining wagon, dragging it clear of the gates so they could be closed. The wagon rolled over ruts and bits of battering ram, and more than one body as it trundled past where Xena, Brendan, and Gabrielle were standing.
A pit was being dug. Xena’s men were dragging dead men over to it and throwing them in, while more soldiers were stripping the dead and dying of their armor and weapons, tossing them into the back of the wagon Gabrielle and Patches had so thoughtfully pulled out into the road for them.
“How fare ye, Mistress?” Brendan asked, looking up at his tall queen. “Was an unexpected battle, this.”
Xena nodded. She was standing with one arm resting on Patches back, and her other draped over Gabrielle’s shoulders. “I’m all right.” She answered. “We didn’t get Bregos.”
“Mistress, we don’t know the bastard was here.” Brendan said. “Given his hurts, I doubt it.”
The queen nodded again. “Find him.” She turned and looked directly at her captain. “I should have killed him on the field. I didn’t. My bad. Now I want his head on the carpet in front of my throne.”
“Has no army now.” The old soldier pointed out.
“Long as he’s alive, he’s a focus.” Xena stated. “I can’t afford that. We lost too many men.”
Brendan looked around, and his shoulders dropped a little. “Aye.”
“Who was leading them?”
Brendan hesitated, and then gave his head a half shake. “Didn’t see, Mistress. Thought t’heard orders coming from that hillock, but…” He pointed to piece of high ground, now empty.
“Ungh.” Xena pushed back from Patches warm side. “All right. Maybe he was stupid enough to announce himself to the guys inside. C’mon, Pony princess.” She gave Gabrielle’s blond hair a tug. “We conquered. Let’s go pillage.”
Gabrielle had long unfastened Patches’ harness, and now she took hold of his bridle to lead him back to the stronghold. The pony followed her agreeably, his hooves making little pocking noises as they pulled themselves free of the mud.
It was hard to believe it was over. The battle had happened so fast, life and death had resolved itself so quickly the details almost seemed like a dream. Gabrielle took a deep breath, and reached up to touch the side of her head. Except that Toris had hurt her, and the evidence of that was painfully apparent.
His hatred had stunned her. It had hurt more than the physical blow and to know now that he was Xena’s brother?
Too much. Gabrielle concentrated on keeping her boots out of the worst of the mud instead, until approaching squelches made her look up to see one of the stronghold’s grooms headed her way. Behind him, she spotted Xena’s stallion being led past, and she surrendered her pony’s halter to the boy as she gave him a tired smile. “He’s kind of dirty.”
“Aye, m’lady.” The boy patted the pony’s nose. “I’ll fix him up for ye.” Then, hesitantly, his eyes slid up to Xena’s face as the queen stood by waiting. “Majesty, t’locked us up in the stable. We wouldna have no part of it.”
Xena studied him, then she smiled. “Didn’t think you would.” She commented. “Everyone knows I treat my stable hands better than my courtiers. Scram.” She watched him lead Patches off, and then continued trudging towards the gates.
Xena walked into the main hall of the stronghold and paused, getting a strange flash as she remembered vividly the first time she’d walked from the battlefield into this space all those years ago.
She looked down at herself, and found the same armor, the same blood, the same dirt, and the same horse manure, then she lifted her head and regarded the one major change in the hall facing her.
It was hers already. That and the huge portrait of her that hung near one end. Her eyes shifted downward. And the blond kid wrapped around her.
Weird. Xena sighed, and turned as she spotted the Duke approaching her. She greeted him with a grin, reaching out with her still drawn sword to slap him in the ribs as he came beside her. “Congratulations. You passed.”
He wiped a bit of mud off his forehead and ducked his head to one side. “Twas a close thing, Mistress. Bastards. Came on us but days after you left, said they’d take in any who’d join em.”
The queen’s blue eyes sharpened. “And?”
“Stirred up those belowstairs.” The Duke said, succinctly. “Troublemakers.”
Xena frowned. “Shoulda just shot them.” She remarked. “They don’t understand anything else.”
The Duke looked distinctly uncomfortable. “Had my plate full, Majesty.” He said, in an apologetic tone. “Didn’t think they’d..” He fell momentarily silent. “All happened so fast.”
“Mm.” Xena let her blade rest on her shoulder. It was caked with gore, and putting it back into it’s sheath in that condition was unthinkable. “Yeah,” The pain of the battle was starting to make itself felt. “All cleaned up outside?”
“Mostly, yes.” He nodded. “Dungeon’s filling up.”
Xena’s eyebrows lifted. “I thought I said to kill them all.” She frowned. “I don’t want to waste time and dinars on prisoners.”
“Those from inside here, Mistress.” The Duke answered. “And there were some who surrendered outside when you rode in.”
“Oh, all right.” The queen exhaled wearily. “I can find all sorts of fun ways to kill them later, I suppose.” She glanced down at the unusually silent Gabrielle, who was still tucked against her side. “Right now, me and the baby princess here are going to go wipe the horse shit from our faces. “
The Duke’s face twitched, but he nodded and bowed, his expression a cross between propriety and chagrin. “If I may say, you were both extraordinary.” He said, hesitantly. “Majesty, your strategy was brilliant.”
Xena slapped him with her sword flat again. “My strategy was crap. Don’t start handing me midden water in a cup, or I’ll have you stripped and thrown in the pig house.” She warned. “We got lucky. Now go back to your room and write down all the details – who it was, how many men, when did he show up… I want it by the time I call court.”
Chastened, the Duke ducked his head and bowed, backing away and disappearing through the north archway.
Xena snorted, and shook her head as she started off towards the wide central stairs. “Y’know what, princess?” She remarked to Gabrielle. “The Fates must have guided you in picking that new bunkroom for us.”
“Cause I aint’ making it up those tower stairs.” The queen admitted. “Thes’ll be more than enough.”
Gabrielle fully appreciated the sentiment. Her head was still ringing and she was sick to her stomach from the blow Toris had given her as well as from the fear of the fight. She slowly climbed the marbled, curved steps, her mind idly pondering over Xena’s latest pet name for her.
“Mm?” The queen seemed to be amusing herself by seeing how much mud and manure she could remove from her boots at each step on the gleaming surface.
“I think I like muskrat better.”
Unexpectedly, Xena’s expression softened. “Do you?” She asked. “That really was the right thing to do with the wagon, y’know.” She added.
“Thanks.” Gabrielle just really wanted to sit down. “And yeah, I do. I don’t think I’m much of a princess.”
They crossed the upper hall, where soldiers were dashing to get into position to guard them, some fresh from the battlefield. Xena gave them a bemused look, but simply returned their respectful salutes with a wave.
There were no servants in evidence. Xena paused and motioned the nearest soldier over. “Make sure the people who came in with the army are taken care of.” She ordered. “They’re my people now.”
The man nodded. “Aye, Mistress.” He put a hand to his chest, ducking his head as he turned and started down the steps at a brisk trot.
Turning, Xena yanked the door open to their new quarters. “S’allright.” She sighed. “Right now I don’t feel like much of a queen. We’ll just have to deal with it.”
One bright note occurred to Gabrielle, as Xena closed the door behind them. They’d be able to see if that bathtub was really as awesome as it looked.
She just hoped they didn’t end up falling asleep in it.
Gabrielle looked up at the soft knock, then she rose and went to the door. Opening it a little, she peered out to find one of the men who’d helped her pull the wagon standing there with a big tray. “Oh. Hi.” He had on a fresh tunic, she noticed, with a newly sewn patch on it bearing Xena’s crest.
“M’lady, I brought this up. Thought you might could use it.” The man said. “Things were tossed up downstairs, but we’ve got em working again.”
“Oh, great.” Gabrielle said, opening the door further. “Thanks.. you can put it down there.” She pointed to a carved sideboard. She was dressed in a light blue linen tunic herself, her skin scrubbed pink to remove all the grime from it. Xena was still in her bath, having more skin to scrub, and she’d sent Gabrielle out to pick her some clothing to change into. “Is everyone okay?”
The man set the tray down. “As can be, m’lady.”
“Could..” Gabrielle cleared her throat. “Could you just call me Gabrielle?”
“No, m’lady.” The man smiled to remove any sting. “Not unless her Majesty wills it.” He straightened his tunic, his eyes dropping to the new patch almost unconsciously. “None want to cross her desires this day.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle said. “Well, thanks – I know the queen definitely could use a good meal.” She waited for the man to leave, then she went to the sideboard and investigated the contents of the tray. “Mm.” It wasn’t only the queen who could use a meal. Her guts felt completely empty, but she resisted the temptation to sneak a nibble, putting the covers back on and returning to her task instead.
They had brought all of Xena’s things from the queen’s former quarters in huge, ornate trunks while they’d been gone, but the attack had prevented any further arranging. So Gabrielle found herself sorting through the fabrics of a lifetime in search of something for the queen to put on.
One whole trunk was gowns. Gabrielle ignored it. The next trunk was more ordinary court wear, heavy in silk and ribbon. Gabrielle ignored that too, pushing the top closed and trudging on to the next. “Ah.” She got down on her knees and sorted through the cloth, finally pulling out a soft, flannel dressing gown in faded crimson. It was unornamented, but it was gentle on her skin, and so it would be gentle on Xena’s, which bore so many scrapes and cuts it was hard to find a clear spot between them.
With a satisfied grunt, she picked up the gown and stood, catching hold of the edge of the trunk as her own exhaustion threatened to send her right back down to the ground. After a dizzy moment, however, she turned and headed for the bathing room.
Xena sat on the edge of the tub, gazing quietly down at her battered body. There were cuts everywhere, some now seeping light trickles of blood from her scrubbing, causing a multitude of stings across her skin. Her entire left knee was covered in a swollen bruise. Her right side was the same, above what she decided were cracked, but not broken ribs.
Her head hurt the worst, though. Aside from her original injury, she’d taken at least three hits during the fight, and broken open the cut on the side of her skull. Her hearing was gone on that side too, and she hoped it was a temporary affliction.
She looked up at the sound of bare feet against the stone, to see Gabrielle reentering the room. “Heard voices.”
The blond woman picked up a towel and brought it with her, gently starting to dry the droplets of bath water from Xena’s skin. “They brought some food up… the guys who were with us took over down there I think.”
“Ah.” The queen reflected on how good Gabrielle’s touch felt. She closed her eyes and simply waited, breathing in the scent of her companion’s clean body, and the almost tickly smell of the tunic she had on as Gabrielle moved around her.
“Oh, Xena.” A soft gasp. “Your head…”
“Hurts. A lot.” The queen acknowledged. “Bet I look like a Gorgon, too.”
A gentle touch parted the damp hair above the injury, even that light pressure making her skull ring. “You’re gonna have to do me a favor, muskrat.” She murmured. “Keep me awake.”
Fingers brushed her cheek, and she let her eyes open, to see Gabrielle’s concerned face looking at her. “Why?” Gabrielle asked. “Don’t’ you want to rest?”
Gods, do I. Xena lifted her hand slightly and pointed to her own head. “If I fall asleep with this, I might not wake up.” She watched her companion’s eyes widen in shock and panic. “Hey.. hey.. take it easy. I’ve got every faith in your ability to keep me from that fate.”
Gabrielle felt irrational tears forming in her eyes, and she stepped back a moment to regain her composure. A shaky breath emerged as she met Xena’s gaze. “S…sorry.” She wiped the back of her hand across her face. “Every time I think we’re okay, it just gets rotten again.”
Xena reached out and laid a hand on her thigh. “Gabrielle.” She waited for her eyes to lift again. “We’re okay.” She reassured her companion. “After all the crap I just went through, I’ll be damned if I’m not gonna live to enjoy lots of hedonistic nights with you.”
Gabrielle sniffled, and managed an embarrassed smile. “Sorry.” She said. “It’s been a really long day.” She offered Xena the gown she’d picked. “I thought this would feel nice.”
Xena stood, and ignored the gown, gathering Gabrielle to her in a hug. “Now this.. feels nice.” She said, ignoring the various and sundry aches and pains. “To Hades with the clothing.”
The window in the bathing room looked out onto the rear of the stronghold, a view of tall mountains and the crystal blue sky. A breeze blew in, raising goosebumps on both of them as they stood in silence together.
A stolen moment of peace, to revel in.
Xena was seated in the large, padded, almost throne-like chair near the windows, facing the bright sunlight so the annoyance of it would keep her awake. Next to her, Gabrielle was sitting on a huge fluffy pillow, her legs pulled up cross-legged under her.
“Here.” Xena speared a piece of roast duck on her knife tip, offering it to her companion. “If you keep licking your plate, I’ll have to have em put the gilt back on it.”
With a faint blush, Gabrielle accepted the tidbit, easing it off the knife and biting into it.
The queen watched her indulgently. “I’m gonna have to have you checked for worms.”
Green eyes flicked to her face in startlement. “Worms?”
“Yeah.” Xena said. “You’re like a horse who eats all day long, and you can still see his ribs. Means they have worms inside them eating all the stuff up.”
Slowly, Gabrielle’s eyes dropped to her midsection, then lifted, widening.
The queen chuckled softly. “Just kidding.” She ruffled Gabirelle’s hair. She noticed that her young friend was leaning against the chair, and if she shaded the light from her eyes, she could see that Gabrielle was a little paler than she usually seemed. “Hey.”
“Oh, sorry.” Gabrielle rubbed her eyes. “I was trying to think of a story.”
Xena touched the side of her head and tilted her face up slightly. “You all right?”
After a moment’s silence, the blond woman gave a half shake of her head. “I’m not sure.” She admitted. “But it’s nothing like how you must feel, so..”
No, that was true. Xena agreed silently. But she’d also had a lot more experience at it. “Something hurt?”
A breath. “Sort of. My head a little.”
Uh oh. “Did someone hit you?” The queen asked, slightly annoyed at herself for not noticing earlier. She examined the blond woman’s skull, running her fingers lightly over her scalp until they stopped, touching a warm lump. “Son of a bacchae.”
“Ow.” Gabrielle winced. “That’s the spot.”
Xena leaned closer and parted the thick, pale hair. “Can’t leave you alone for a minute, can I? Did that worthless piece of crap brother of mine do this to you?”
“Relax.” The queen murmured. “I’m going to kill him anyway. This’ll just make it that much more enjoyable for me.” She heard the catch in Gabrielle’s breathing. “C’mon, muskrat. Don’t tell me you feel sorry for him.”
“He’s…” Gabrielle lifted one shoulder in a partial shrug. “Is he really your brother?”
“Mm.” Xena tilted Gabrielle’s chin up a little. “Close your eyes.” She watched the blond lashes flutter closed obediently. While she counted to ten, she admired the gentle planes of her bedmate’s face. “Okay, open em.”
The green eyes appeared, the skin around them tensing as the light apparently bothered their owner.
“Ah.” The queen exhaled, seeing one dark pupil remain dilated. “Well, you don’t get to sleep either, it looks like. That’s a bad knock.” She studied the huddled form. “Come on up here.”
Xena moved over. “Here. Damn thing’s big enough for six of us.”
Gabrielle got up and crawled into the huge chair with the queen, curling up against her side. She’d been shivering slightly, but the warmth of Xena’s body immediately made her feel better, although their conversation had made her feel infinitely worse.
“Yeah, he’s really my brother.” Xena told her. “Worthless traitorous bastard that he is.” She offered Gabrielle another piece of meat. “Can’t believe he had the balls to come here… he had to know if I caught him he was a dead man.”
“You really hate him.”
“Hate?” Xena released a short, bitter laugh. “Did he tell you who he was?”
“No.” Gabrielle whispered. “He just… he said he knew you. He said you destroyed his home.”
“Oh yeah.” The queen’s eyes were cold and remote. “Backwater little town… we’d gone there to… “ She hesitated. “Just do some trading. Figured it was as good a place as any to spend a few dinars.”
Gabrielle watched her profile in silence.
“Didn’t want to hurt anyone.. “ Xena let her head rest against the chair back. “He sold us out for a bag of dinars and the promise of a commission. Brought the army in while we were sleeping.. only thing that saved us was a gods be damned rooster they set off sneaking in.”
“Whole place was in on it. Figured they’d make an easy buck on our hides.” Xena’s voice was quiet. “So yeah, after we escaped being slaughtered, and the army went after easier pickings, we came back and I burnt the damn place to the ground.”
Gabrielle remained still for a bit. “Did he know who you were?”
The queen nodded. “Oh yeah.” Another bitter laugh. “Went on an on about how glad he was to see us. His only family.” Her lips twitched. “And I was stupid enough to believe him.”
Memories of her childhood settled over her like bats wings. “It’s… hard when your family hurts you.” Gabrielle finally said.
“Yeah.” Xena agreed. Then she took and released a deep breath. “So anyway… we’re supposed to be cheering each other up and keeping ourselves awake. Let’s can the maudlin memories and start kissing.”
“Okay.” Gabrielle agreed with surprising promptness. “But…”
“Whhhyyyyy did I know there was going to be a but there.” Xena tilted her head back and regarded the ceiling. “What is it, muskrat?”
Tenderly, Gabrielle reached over and stroked Xena’s cheek with the backs of her fingers. “You know.. even with all the bad things my father did to us… he was still my family.” She said.
“And?” Xena peered at her.
“And… he thinks of you a certain way, Xena. Maybe you can prove him wrong.”
The pale blue eyes took on an almost gray glint as the queen looked at her. Slowly, one hand lifted and touched the lump on the side of Gabrielle’s head, and just as slowly, Xena shook her own. “No.” She said, huskily. “He’s not wrong.” She traced a line down the blond woman’s face. “What did he offer you?”
Gabrielle met her eyes with total honestly. “Everything but the one thing I really wanted.”
One dark eyebrow lifted.
Gabrielle put her fingertip on Xena’s nose.
Xena blinked a few times, looking down before meeting Gabrielle’s eyes again. “Remember what I told you about families?”
“Don’t forget it.” The queen said. “Specially when we’re in court and I do what I have to do.”
Slowly, Gabrielle nodded in understanding. “I just thought I..”
“Shh. I know.” Xena put her fingertips over Gabrielle’s lips. “It’s all right. It’s a part of you. I know that.” She leaned closer. “It’s just not a part of me.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “You understand that?”
Caught in the circle of Xena’s arms, Gabrielle could find only one answer to that question. “Yes.”
“Will you hate me for it?”
“No.” Gabrielle whispered back. “I just hope you won’t hate you for it.”
Xena fell silent, for a very long time.
“Once up on a time there was a little baby lamb.” Gabrielle felt her voice wavering, as she started on her third story.
“His name wasn’t Lambchop, was it.” Xena interrupted.
“No.” Gabrielle picked up her mug and drank from it. “It was Boris.”
“Boris.” The queen repeated. “You’re kidding, right?”
The light had started to fade, and it was moving towards a bluish twilight outside. “No, really.” Gabrielle said. “The little lamb’s name was Boris, and one day when his shepherd took him, and his family out to graze, and amazing thing happened to him.”
“He got skinned and turned into slippers?”
Gabrielle smiled, resting her aching head against Xena’s shoulder. “No, he discovered that he could fly.”
“Whew. Thought he started talking.” The queen exhaled. “Damn it, muskrat. I feel like six day old horse crap.”
“Mm. Me too.”
Xena could feel sleep calling her insistently, and one look at Gabrielle’s half closed eyes meant the blond woman heard the same call. “C’mon. I’ve got an idea.” She said. “Let’s grab some cloaks, and go walk in your damn garden.”
They ended up putting on more than just cloaks, but eventually walked together through the hall towards the outside courtyards. The halls were full of guards now, all of them bracing to attention as the queen passed.
There were very few servants in evidence. “Reminds me of when I first took over this place.” Xena commented. “Just my men around.” She glanced down one long hallway. “I think I like it. Quieter.”
“Me too.” Gabrielle took the queen’s hand and clasped it in hers as they walked. “I remember the first few nights I was here… it all seemed so loud.”
The guard opened the doors for them as they approached, and they left the relative warmth of the stronghold for the cold air outside. Their footsteps seemed loud on the rock path, and they were indeed alone as they turned towards the gates of the garden.
Gabrielle could already smell it, the rich scent of the herbs, and the trees inside. She pushed the gate open eagerly and stood to let Xena enter, closing the wrought iron behind them. The last bit of sunset was just dusting the tops of the plants with crimson, and she walked over to a rose bush and sniffed a bloom appreciatively.
The queen watched her for a moment, then she strolled past the rose bush and found a small, leafy plant low to the ground near a moss covered old stump. “Ah.” She sat down on the stump and stripped some of the leaves off the plant, folding them over and putting them into her mouth.
They tasted fuzzy. Stolidly, Xena chewed them, trying not to think about caterpillars as Gabrielle wandered over to join her, bringing her rose along.
“Are you eating that plant?”
“Uh huh.” The queen nodded. “You ate everything else. What choice do I have?”
Gabrielle knelt down and offered her the rose. “Would you like to snack on this? I think it probably tastes better.”
“Mm.” Xena plucked a rose petal and popped it into her mouth. “You’re right, it does.” She agreed. “But this stuff’ll help my head. Maybe.”
“Oh.” Gabrielle sat down on the ground and examined the plant. “Can I try some?”
Without comment, the queen handed her a leaf, watching with benignly impish eyes as she put it into her mouth and tentatively chewed it.
Immediately, her face wrinkled. “Ugh.” Gabrielle squeaked. “Thas…thas..” She poked her tongue out, covered with the fuzzy green matter.
Xena chuckled. “Yeah, it’s nasty. But swallow it – it’ll do you good.”
Gabrielle pulled her tongue back in and with a look of supreme fortitude, swallowed the fuzzy green bits. The taste was bitter, and somewhat musty, and she wished she had something to wash it down with. “Um..” She spotted an apple and got up, ducking around the queen and plucking it. She sat back down and took a bite, then offered Xena the other side.
Xena leaned over and nudged it until Gabrielle’s bite mark faced her, then she sunk her teeth into it, twisting her head slightly to pull off a mouthful.
It was crisp, and cold, and if she really concentrated, she could just taste Gabrielle on it.
The queen licked her lips. “I think you just wanted an excuse to raid the appletree.”
Gabrielle paused, her eyes dropping. She offered Xena the rest of the fruit. “Sorry.”
Hm. Xena frowned. “That was supposed to be funny.” She waited for the green eyes to lift, frowning again when they didn’t. “Gabrielle?”
“Um. I know.” Now, the blond woman did look up, slightly abashed. “I just used to get… “ She paused. “Back home, I mean. That’s how.. we’d get punished when we were bad. Sent to bed without supper… kind of thing. “ Her eyes flicked to Xena’s. “I was pretty bad.”
Without really thinking about it, Xena reached out and cupped Gabrielle’s cheek surprisingly horrified at the unintentional hurt her words had caused. “Hey.” She smoothed her thumb against the creases of pain on her companion’s face. “I’m sorry.”
Xena tasted the stark unfamiliarity of those words on her lips. “Listen.” She drew in a breath, feeling an ache in her chest as she looked into Gabrielle’s gentle, trusting gaze. “If you want to eat the entire gods be damned garden you go ahead.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean to..” The blond woman’s brow contracted. “I think I’m just really tired and my mind is kind of going all over the place.”
Xena studied her tips of her boots. “Yeah, maybe I am too.” She admitted, unable to explain the turmoil inside her any other way. “C’mon. Let’s see what else we can scrounge in here. Might as well get em before the frost does.”
“We don’t have to.”
“No.” The queen agreed. “But we’re gonna.” She stood up and extended a hand. “Come, my friend.”
Gabrielle took her hand and they walked together in the sunset, raiding the fruit trees of their late season’s harvest, sharing in companionable silence until the last light faded from the sky.
The dungeon was dark, and cold, and damp. Xena stood in the long unused back doorway of it, at the foot of a narrow, circular stairs that few in the stronghold even knew about.
She knew. Xena had made it her business to prowl around her new conquest until she’d seen every square inch of it.
Now, she let her eyes adjust to the darkness and cocked her head to listen to the sounds of fear and pain echoing softly from the stark rock walls. With a frown, she lifted a hand to rub the ear that wasn’t working, then she sighed and started to move slowly along the wall.
It was a disgusting place. There had always been a reason Xena had preferred to kill her enemies than put them in here. A form of mercy, really. The queen glanced at the pits on either side of the main hallway, filled with dirt and water and plenty of vermin.
They were packed with occupants this time. She could hear the women sobbing, and at least one whispered prayer floated up to her.
Xena stopped and listened. Then she moved on to another cell, this one filled with defeated soldiers. There were no prayers here, these men knew what their fates were, and most lay huddled in silence. Standing in the shadows, the queen watched them, knowing they would see her as just another guard if anything.
Finally, she went to the area where there were smaller cells, tiny chambers meant for a single occupant and filled with all the accoutraments of torture.
Xena stood across from the last one in the row and stared at the prisoner chained to the rusty spikes inside it. Toris was either asleep or unconscious, his features barely distinguishable in the low light from the torches set into the wall.
It had been years since she’d seen him. Two years her elder, he was tall like she was, and they shared thick, dark hair and blue eyes. But that was where the resemblance ended. His body was thin, with overlong arms and legs, and a flatter, more brutish face that shared none of her planed angularity.
How had she missed his being here? Xena could see blood in several places on his linen servants clothing and by the angle of one elbow, she’d guessed it was dislocated.
Painful, no doubt.
Xena leaned back against the wall, suddenly realizing she was too tired to even feel the hatred she knew she held for him. Here he was, her bastard of a brother and tomorrow?
Tomorrow he’d be dead, and she’d be the last of her family left on the earth.
The queen turned and walked through the arched front doorway of the dungeon, turning right down a dark, dusty corridor instead of heading up the flight of stairs that would take her back up into the stronghold. At the end of the hall was a door.
She slipped a key from her belt and opened it, the rasp of the metal lock loud as she pushed the door open and descended another flight of steps and came to a gate.
It was simple. Just wrought iron hammered into a plain but clean pattern by careful hands. Xena laid those hands on it and pushed it open, turning to set the torch she’d carried with her into a sconce just inside.
It was unprepossessing in the extreme. The walls were plain, but clean, as was the floor. In the center of the room were two stone crypts, one empty, the other not.
Against the wall was a carved bench. Xena walked over to it and sat down, resting her elbows on her knees and letting her chin settle on her clasped hands. In front of her the sealed crypt sat patiently, the simple crest and carving almost invisible in the low light.
She knew every inch of it anyway. Every nock in the stone, every chiseled angle and letter had been done by her, in the long, lonely days after Lyceus’ death. This was the one single place in the stronghold that was totally theirs – it had been nothing but a forgotten storeroom before she’d found it.
“You know, Ly.” Xena spoke in a low voice. “Sometimes I think you were the lucky one of us both.” She studied the carved name with pensive eyes. “But I had to come down here and tell you… remember that big argument we always used to have? You used to tease me all the time about what would happen to me if I ever fell in love? Remember that one?”
Echoes of her own speech answered her. “Yeah, well…” Xena sighed. “You were right.” She paused for a bit, rubbing her thumb against her knuckle. “You were right. Wish you could be here to see it.”
She sat there for a few more minutes, then with a sigh, she got up and walked to the crypt, laying her hands on her brother’s tomb. Her eyes closed, and she remained still for a few heartbeats. Then she straightened and gave the crypt a pat, as she circled it and headed for the iron gates.
It was time at last to rest. Xena closed the gates behind her and started up the steps, heading back to the wide, spacious expanse of her new rooms, where Gabrielle was waiting for her, along with Boris the lamb.
Tomorrow would be a new day.
Gabrielle woke in time to see the first light of dawn tinting the windows. She felt a strange sense of dislocation briefly, then she remembered where she was, and a soft smile crossed her face.
Their new bed, with it’s soft, feather stuffed mattress had been a surprise to both of them. Xena had assumed they’d moved the furniture from her former tower chamber, but they quickly realized that instead, the castle steward had restored the bed that had once been in here.
She ran her fingers over the rich, thick fabric, and the silk sheet covering them that glistened faintly in the coming dawn. It was draped over Xena, and after a moment Gabrielle snuggled a little closer, pressing her body against the queen’s, gaining a sense of warmth and security.
Xena was asleep. But Gabrielle could feel her breathing, her chest moving under the arm she had draped over her bedmate, and hear the slow, steady beat of her heart.
It was a very peaceful feeling. Gabrielle moved her jaw a little, heartened to find much less ache from the lump on the side of her head. It had felt so good to finally go to sleep last night, long after Xena had come back from her walk, long after she’d finished her last story, and they’d eaten dinner together.
She had been so tired. Too tired even to do anything once they’d crawled into bed other than nestle against Xena and let the exhaustion she’d been somehow keeping at bay all afternoon take her over. She thought she remembered hearing Xena’s voice singing to her as she fell asleep, but it was hard to tell if that was really a memory, or just a wishful thought.
After all, the queen was exhausted, and injured too. And she’d seemed so quiet and sort of down before they’d gone to sleep.
Gabrielle watched the window panes begin to take on a light pink glow. I could have died yesterday. The thought made her shiver, a little. I thought I was going to die. She’d seen the hatred in Toris’ face, and the bright flash if sun on his ax as it came towards her.
It had happened too fast for her to be frightened, but not too fast for her to feel a sudden jolt of searing regret.
Of disappointment. She wasn’t ready to die yet. Gabrielle listened to the music of Xena’s heartbeat. She wasn’t ready to have her life’s journey cut so short, now that her road had lead her to walk along side someone she’d given her heart to.
Xena had saved her life. Gabrielle tilted her head up to study the queen’s profile. Not only had Xena saved her, she’d risked her own life to do it, and she’d taken that risk knowingly.
Those blue eyes staring into hers, for those few heartbeats, had reflected that knowledge.
THEN.. she’d felt fear. But Gabrielle hadn’t had time to think about it, because in a breath after that, Xena had taken Toris down, and it was all okay.
It was all okay. She gazed up, watching Xena’s eyelids quiver in some dream, a faint twitch working it’s way across her lips at the same time. What was she dreaming about? Gabrielle wondered. Was it the same kind of dream she’d had, a whirl of color and images, and the taste of rose petals?
Gods, she loved her so. Gabrielle savored the intensity of it, wanting a lifetime of mornings just like this one.
And yet, what would the rest of the day bring? She wondered. It would be great if they could have some time of peace, but she knew the end of this day would likely be in crimson blood rather than the soft, cheerful pinks and orange of sunrise.
But was it wrong? Having faced the point of a sword herself, she at last understood that there were things you cherished, people you cherished, that were worth doing violence for to protect. She felt strange thinking that, as though part of her had changed and become someone else.
Well maybe she had. Gabrielle pondered that for a while. It wasn’t that she wanted to see people get hurt, or to die, she decided, it was more that now she kind of understood why Xena did what she did.
Gabrielle laid there thinking about what that meant. Did she feel that way just because she loved the queen, and that made what she did all right? What if she was one of the servants who had rebelled… and now she was in the dungeons. How would she feel then?
Lousy, probably. She sighed. But she wasn’t, even though she could have been. She’d chosen a different path. The people in the dungeon also had a choice. No one had forced them to do what they did, even though she suspected that Toris had convinced them that they would be better off if they did.
Well, he’d been wrong. Sometimes life was like that. Sometimes you made bad choices and you ended up in a stinking dungeon, and sometimes you made good choices and ended up in a nice, comfortable bed with someone who loved you.
That was kind of harsh, she acknowledged, but it was also true. Sometimes you just got lucky.
Xena moved in her sleep, sliding her arms around Gabrielle and tightening her hold with a low sound of contentment.
So what would she have done if she hadn’t been lucky? Gabrielle stroked skin of the queen’s shoulder with the edge of her thumb. What if Xena had lost the battle, and it was her down in the dungeon instead of Toris and Brego’s men?
Would she have gone with Xena?
Gabrielle imagined that. She thought about what it would be like if they were in the dungeon, facing death together. “Hm.” She glanced up at Xena’s face, just as the queen’s eyes blinked open sleepily. “Oh.”
“Oh, what?” Xena asked, in a husky voice. “Oh, great gods I’m sleeping with a gorgon?”
“Oh, you’re awake.’ Gabrielle replied softly. “Now it’s a perfect morning.”
A tiny grin worked it’s way across the queen’s lips. “You actually mean that.” She remarked. “Don’t you?”
Xena stroked her face, pushing bits of blond hair back out of her eyes with endearing gentleness. “Y’know, I dreamed about you last night.”
“Mmhm.” Xena murmured. “Just you and me, out by some lake, fishing.”
“Just us.” The queen confirmed. “Summer day, butterflies… “
“It was.” Xena glanced down and peeked under the sheets. “But this is pretty good too.” She stroked her bedmate’s bare hip. “You’re a damn nice thing to wake up to, muskrat. I’m glad you’re here.”
Gabrielle snuggled up to her and gave her a hug. “I’m glad I’m here too.” She whispered. “I’m glad I came here.”
Xena was silent for a few heartbeats. Then she returned the hug, pulling Gabrielle tight against her. “We’ve got some work to do today, muskrat.”
“I know.” Gabrielle murmured, against the skin of Xena’s neck.
“It’s a stinking road.” The queen warned. “It’s a dark road. It’s full of blood, and death.”
A moment of silence. “But you’re going down it.”
Gabrielle didn’t release her hold one bit. “Then take me with you.”
Xena buried her face in Gabrielle’s hair and simply held her, lost in the grace of a commitment she never expected. This was a precious gift, and no matter her history, she knew it. Gabrielle would go where she went, and suffer what she suffered, and Xena knew in her heart that the responsibility of that rested solely on her shoulders.
Well, all right then. “C’mon.” She gave Gabrielle one final squeeze. “Come help me be the queen.”
The rising sun poured into through the windows, bringing cleansing light and chasing back the shadows into nothingness.
The great hall was filled to capacity. Ringing the walls were Xena’s troops, in full armor. Keeping a wary eye on them was a thick crowd of courtiers and nobles. Runners sent out on the roads had recalled them all to the stronghold and so now, at sunset of the second day after Xena had returned, they were here, and waiting.
The throne in the room was, as yet, empty. On either side of the large, ornate chair, smaller chairs had been placed, and all three were decorated in stately cloth of gold draping and fall flowers. Two soldiers stood on either side, ramrod straight, armor glistening in the light of the candles spread over the room to give it an uncommon brilliance.
The two doors in the far wall opened, and banged back against the stone. The crowd turned and fell silent, watching as yet more soldiers came in, dragging prisoners with them. Men in stripped half armor, some bloody, some bound were thrown down into a cleared space before the thrones. Behind them came the servants, frightened and sobbing, shoved to their knees behind the men of war.
The open space filled quickly, as the soldiers kept bringing more prisoners. Last of all, Toris was brought in chains, with a leather gag tied into his mouth. He has a rope around his neck, and the soldiers drag him around like a mongrel before the watching nobles before they end up forcing him to his knees at the bottom step.
Brendan entered the room from the other door. In his arms, he cradled Xena’s sword, polished to an almost painful degree and seated in its worn, leather sheath. With a quiet dignity, he slowly eased up the steps, setting the sword down on Xena’s throne reverently.
Then he circled the chair and came to stand behind it, his bearded face almost glowing with pride as he stood in that position of honor.
A sense of tense expectation now filled the room. And yet, still the huge main doors remained closed.
Xena chewed neatly on a pheasant leg, as she perched in the window seat watching the sun go down outside. She was alone in the antechamber, having sent Brendan out after her captain brought her in a tray from the kitchen.
Outside, the cold, crisp air was separating the light into layers of surprisingly gentle pastels, robbing the sky of the blood fire she’d expected.
Still, it was impressive. Xena watched peacefully as the rays penetrated the leaded glass, washing over her skin and tinting it with color.
She had spent the day commanding audiences as her nobles had arrived, pinning their ears to the wall and extracting the information she needed from them one by one. Now, she’d called her final court of the day, and everyone knew it was coming to the end for many of those she felt needed judging.
The door to her little refuge opened, but Xena kept her eyes on the window, knowing with a sense beyond her hearing or smell who the intruder was. “Hey, muskrat.”
Gabrielle crossed the room and came to her side. Xena turned around, looking her blond companion up and down in some surprise. “I know I threw something prettier than that at you.” She commented, prodding the shoulder of the tunic Gabrielle was wearing. “You don’t need to wear that.”
Gabrielle straightened a little inside the uniform. “I know.” She agreed softly. “But I wanted to wear it.” She touched the hawk’s head on her chest. “It kind of says something about who I am.”
One of Xena’s dark eyebrows cocked upward. “An adorable, sexy blond thing with terrible taste in clothing?”
Gabrielle glanced down and smiled.
“Okay.” Xena reached over and offered her a fruit stuffed confection from her goodie tray. “Here.” She waited for the tidbit to be taken from her fingers by a set of neat white teeth. Picking up a cup from the tray she took a swallow of rich, white wine, then held the goblet to Gabrielle’s lips. “Now. Let’s go take care of business.”
Gabrielle lifted her hand to wipe her lips, but was forestalled by the queen leaning over and removing the droplets of wine for her in a very thorough and intense way. She let her hand fall to rest on Xena’s thigh, feeling the strength of it under the heavy fabric of her regal robes.
They broke apart at last and looked at each other. Xena held her hand out, and eased up from her seat, starting towards the doors to her great hall. She kept hold of Gabrielle’s fingers even as they reached the doors, and with a grand gesture, the guard flung them open.
Bang. Bang. Bang. The seneschal slammed his staff against the marble. “All kneel for Xena the Merciless!”
Xena stood stock still, only her icy eyes sweeping the crowd as they did the seneschal’s bidding, hastily dropping to their knees regardless of their fine dress. By the foot of the dias, the Duke also knelt, bowing his head and touching his fist to his chest for good measure.
The queen waited until everyone was down. Then she strolled through the masses, Gabrielle’s hand clasped in hers as they headed for the thrones. No one met her eyes as she passed.
They mounted the stairs, passing the kneeling Duke. As Xena reached the top of the dias, she gracefully gestured Gabrielle to the right hand seat next to hers, and waited until her companion had settled in it. Then she sauntered down the steps and booted the Duke in the back, crooking her finger at him when he turned to look at her.
A little hesitantly, he rose and joined her and she towed him back up the steps and shoved him into the other seat.
Then she turned to face the crowd, and put her hands on her hips.
There was fear out there. Xena could sense it, and she absorbed the feeling of power that gave her. “I commanded you all here to get a few things straight.” She paused, to let her voice echo off the walls. “I’ve been putting up with a lot of crap lately, and I’ve had enough of it. No more.” She barked the last two words.
As she expected, no one interrupted her. In fact, no one even met her eyes. Xena began to pace, prowling across her dais in front of the thrones. “I know there are those in this room who were betting on me never coming back here.” She said. “YOU LOST!” She roared. “How MANY people have to die before you LEARN?”
She stopped, and crossed her arms, glaring at the packed room. The effect was rather lost, however, since everyone kept their head down and didn’t look at her. “Let’s find out.” She returned to her seat and drew her sword from its sheath, checking the blade carefully for nicks or carelessly left blood.
It was spotless, and razor sharp. Her eyes flicked to Brendan, and she allowed him a smile for the meticulous work, especially given the state the old thing was in when she’d given it to him. Then she turned and walked back to the edge of the platform. “Bring him.” She pointed the blade at Toris.
Her men lifted Toris to his feet and dragged him up the steps. They held him up before her and she took a moment to study his dirty, bruised face.
There was nothing but hatred in his eyes for her. Xena accepted that, understanding there was nothing in her that held anything of love for him in return. “This is the second time you’ve tried to kill me, Toris.” She remarked, almost conversationally. “The last time, I wanted to cut you up in a thousand pieces, but Ly talked me out of it.”
If he could have cursed at her, he would have. Xena could see his throat working, and his lips writhing around the gag. “I know what they’re all thinking. That I should have some mercy on you because you’re my brother.”
The crowd stirred.
“But you didn’t have any mercy on me, did you?” Xena placed the point of her sword against his gut. “You would have watched us both burn and taken your bag of dinars gladly, wouldn’t you have?”
He struggled against the guards, his eyes raking her with anger. Xena stared intently at him, trying to read anything of their commonality in all that hatred.
Abruptly, she leaned forward, grabbing his head with her free hand and pulling him close to her. She whispered a few words in his ear, then with a savage motion, shoved the blade of her sword into his chest to the hilts.
He writhed for a moment, then the motion faltered, and his knees buckled. Xena shoved him from her and yanked her sword free, motioning to the soldiers to release him as he fell to the ground.
A pool of crimson spread under him. Xena held her left hand up to the crowd, stained with the same color. Her eyes swept around the room, absorbing the horror in the faces. “That’s MY justice.” She uttered, in a harsh growl. “No one escapes it.”
She waited to let the shock penetrate them. Then she slowly lowered her hand to her side, and flipped her sword in her hand, sending a tiny spray of blood droplets to taint the marble floor. “Next.” She pointed at the first of the captive soldiers.
A pall of terror had descended on the room. Xena could hear the muffled, choked crying of the servants as they felt death stalk amongst them, and the prisoner her men lead forward was almost being dragged, his legs unable to carry him.
They reached her and she stepped up onto Toris’ body, grabbing the soldier’s chin in her blood stained hand and forcing his head up to face her.
There were tears in his eyes. He was breathing so hard and so fast it almost didn’t sound human. Xena tilted her head and gazed intently at him, watching his entire body shiver in fear at her touch.
After a moment, she turned her head to look over her shoulder. Gabrielle was sitting where she’d left her, both hands clenched in front of her mouth, and her eyes steady, but glinting with unshed tears of her own.
Xena turned back to her victim. “You surrendered.” She addressed the soldier. “Why?”
For a second, he didn’t answer, shocked at being spoken to instead of gutted. “D…” His teeth were chattering. “Didn’t wanna d..die.”
The queen pulled his head up a little higher, and laid her sword on his shoulder, it’s edge touching his neck. “We were outnumbered five to one, and you had accomplices inside the castle. You were so sure you’d lose?”
Silently, he nodded.
Xena’s long lashes flickered closed, then they opened, revealing bright, blue orbs. “Maybe you didn’t.” She released him and stepped back, lifting her sword from his neck and letting it settle to rest on her shoulder. “All right.” She addressed several of her men, standing in guard around the prisoners. “Take the ones who put their weapons down back to the barracks.”
Even her men were shocked.
“Treat em like new recruits. They sweep the floors until they prove they’re not as stupid as they look for going with Bregos in the first place.”
After a stunned pause, her men started moving, pulling the prisoners to their feet. The reprieved men wavered on their feet, scarcely able to believe they weren’t going to die. They were led out, leaving the servants alone in the guarded circle.
“Bregos will be hunted until I find him.” Xena remarked. “He won’t be needing those guys and I might.” She paused, and then she slowly sauntered down the steps and faced her last victims. Near the front were two women, holding onto each other. She stopped beside them and looked down.
They started shaking. Xena tapped them on the head with her sword. “Hey.”
Terrified, they looked up at her.
“What’d he promise you?” The queen asked.
“F.. freedom.” The older of the two whispered.
“Uh huh.” Xena examined her sword. “Death’s a kind of freedom.” She said. “Maybe he was right.”
A sudden hush fell again, a creeping fog of horror after the unexpected good luck of the soldiers. But Xena took a step back again, and addressed the seneschal. “Take them all, and kick them out of the gates.” She ordered. “They want freedom? Fine. Let em find it on the winter road.”
With that, she turned her back on them and walked back up the stairs, past Toris’ body, past the blood stains, up to the top step where her throne awaited her.
Where Gabrielle awaited her.
Xena turned and sat down, letting her sword point rest on the stone as she put her crimson stained hands squarely on the throne arms. “The queen is dead.” She uttered, in a tone half bemused, and half in wonder. She looked up as she felt a warmth cover her right hand, seeing a splash of pale skin as Gabrielle’s fingers covered hers. “Long live the queen?”
Against her will, her eyes dropped to the body lying on the stone, and she acknowledged the twinge of regret that pinched at her heart.
Ah. The price of humanity.
Somewhere in all that, Xena found something to smile about.
“So.” Xena was sprawled in the big chair in her chambers, one leg slung over the arm and her body covered in a rough, sleeveless blue tunic, belted at her waist. “What do you think, Gabrielle?”
Still in her tunic, Gabrielle set down the robes Xena had stripped out of and walked over to where the queen was sitting. “Think about what?” She asked.
Xena rolled her head to one side and looked at her. “Court.” She said. “Tonight.” She shifted over in the chair and patted the surface invitingly. “You’ve been quiet like a mouse since we got back here.”
“Well.” Gabrielle perched on the edge of the seat. “I was just thinking.”
“Ahh. That’s what I was afraid of.” Now that court was over, Xena found herself thinking about the future, and about what life would be like now that she had someone bound and determined to share it with her. “Hey, know what?”
“What?” Gabrielle leaned lightly against Xena.
“That door over there goes into another couple of rooms.” The queen pointed. “Get your stuff set up in there, give you some space where you can…think.” She smiled a little. “You like that?”
Gabrielle’s eyes lifted to the door, then went back to the queen’s face. “You always did find me some of my own space.” She stroked her fingers along the skin of Xena’s arm. “I never had any at home.”
“I don’t think I did either.” Xena replied in a quiet voice. “Maybe that’s why I… I remember when I picked out those rooms in the tower for myself. All that space…and Ly just wanted someplace he could put all his stuff and not have to pack it away all the time.”
“This was really your first home, wasn’t it?”
The queen was silent for a few moments, and then she nodded. “I guess it was.”
Gabrielle hitched one leg up and rested it on her knee. “I know how you feel about that.” She said. “I remember when they brought me upstairs and gave me that little cubby outside in the tower.” A faint sigh. “That was the first time I’d ever had my own bed.”
Xena laughed shortly. “These rich bastards really don’t have a clue, do they?”
“No, they really sometimes don’t.”
“So.” The queen laid her hand on Gabrielle’s knee. “You like that idea? Those rooms? They big enough? Go look.”
Gabrielle obediently got up and walked over to the door, one she hadn’t really noticed earlier. She opened it and poked her head through, peering curiously into the space beyond.
Her eyes blinked. Then she pulled her head back into the big room and looked around at Xena. The queen was leaning on the chair arm, resting her chin on her wrist and watching her. “Theres… a lot of stuff in there.”
Slowly, Gabrielle pointed at her own chest.
“Uh huh.” Xena produced a pleased grin. She got up and came over, nudging Gabrielle through the door and into the new room. Inside, she put her hands on her bedmate’s shoulders as they both gazed around at it.
It wasn’t a huge room, but there were a lot of windows in it. Xena guessed it had been the previous queen’s solarium. She’d had a couple of comfortable carved wooden chairs brought in, with plush pillows on them near the wall of glass. On one side was a desk, piled high with parchment and quills, and next to that, a huge wardrobe with all the clothes she’d given Gabrielle, plus more.
Near the back was a cozy daybed, and next to that, on either side, beautiful carved casements meant for scrolls.
Gabrielle walked to the desk and picked up a quill, it’s pure, white feathers twinkling in the candlelight. She turned towards Xena. “All this is for me?”
Xena nodded. “I figured…” She sat down on one of the chairs and looked oddly uncertain, clasping her hands between her knees. “I want you to be happy here.”
Gabrielle let her eyes wander over the space, so carefully chosen, and so thoughtfully filled for her. Then she walked over and put her arms around Xena. “I’d be happy sleeping in a basket at the foot of your bed.” She told the queen with bare honesty. “But this is wonderful. Thank you.” Gently, she kissed Xena on the cheek, and then buried her face against the queen’s neck.
Mm. Xena leaned back in the chair and pulled Gabrielle into her lap, taking her reward for a long and in many ways difficult day.
It was a day that had seen the hand of her justice. It was a day that had seen the taking back of her authority, in a way none could mistake.
A day that had seen her naming of a consort, and her public freeing of Gabrielle.
A day that had seen men crying with relief, as they scrubbed the floors of her army’s barracks.
A day that had seen women crying from despair as they were forced out the stronghold gates into the cold of a late fall night.
It was a day that had seen the death of her brother, at her own hand.
“Was it hard for you to do what you did tonight?” Gabrielle asked, softly. “To Toris, I mean?”
“No.” Xena replied, after a moment’s hesitation. “I looked into his eyes and all I saw was a hating animal looking back at me. ” She glanced down at the woman lying in her arms. “He wouldn’t have stopped trying to hurt me.. hurt anything that was close to me.”
Gabrielle reached up and touched her cheek. “But you’re sad.”
Xena leaned into the pressure, living the truth of the statement. “I am.” She admitted. “It was like you said – even after all that, the bastard was still my brother.”
“Mm.” Gabrielle nestled against her.
“Ly told me…” The queen went on, unexpectedly. “He said when I…. fell in love.. it would change me.” She hesitated, studying Gabrielle’s face, turned up to watch her intently. “He was right. The oracle was right.”
“The oracle? But I thought he said opening your heart would destroy you.”
Uh huh.” The queen agreed. “You destroyed me.” She watched with a gentle smile as Gabrielle’s eyes went very wide and round. “S’allright. I enjoyed it.”
“Really, I did.” Xena leaned forward and kissed her. “I don’t know what you’re gonna make of me in the end, Gabrielle, but y’know, it’s gonna be fun finding out.”
Gabrielle looked past the leaded windows to the twinkling stars beyond. Were they winking at her? High above, a ribbon of milky white swirled through them, seeming to be a ghostly road leading to a place she hadn’t yet imagined. “Well…” She put her arms around Xena’s neck, and returned the kiss. “I’ll try not to be to tough on you.”
They both laughed.
Maybe even the stars did.
The End. (for now)